Ben Franklin's Worst Nightmare
The ground feels a little soft, but we're going to stand it.
Premise one: Having a fair election -- all votes counted, all who are eligible and want to vote allowed to vote -- is far, far more important, even in 2008, than who wins.
Premise two: Fair elections are not a given. They never have been, but things are worse now than ever before because of a perfect storm, you might say, of factors that have converged in the new millennium: officialdom's seduction by unsafe, high-tech voting systems; the seizure of power by a party of ruthless true believers who feel entitled to rule and will do anything to win; a polite, confused opposition party that won't make a stink about raw injustice; and an arrogantly complacent media embedded in the political and economic status quo.
The result: Benjamin Franklin's worst nightmare.
"Well, Doctor, what have we got -- a Republic or a Monarchy?"
"A Republic, if you can keep it."
As Franklin, who uttered those words in answer to a citizen's query as he left the final session of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, saw with clarity, we don't have an easy form of government. Rather, it's a complex, unstable yoking of disparate forces, many with a blind urge to dominate. Only by keeping them in relative check do we maintain our relative freedom and, most importantly, our right to participate in our macro-destiny: that is, to have a say in, to help determine, the country's direction.
Without an intense degree of citizen involvement at the structural level -- down there amid the gears and cogs of universal enfranchisement -- our government will soon default to something far simpler: one that is of, by and for whoever seizes power.
I know, just thinking about this is terrifying. The stakes are too high. We have no context for contemplating the possibility that the United States is anything but "the world's greatest democracy," which surely explains why most of the media, including a phalanx of progressive publications that ought to be on hair-trigger alert about vote suppression and manipulation, have ignored or dismissed the glaring danger signals.
These signals include, among much else: obscenely long lines in many African-American and student precincts on Election Day 2004; bogus voter challenges and purges; vote-flipping ("I pressed Kerry and Bush lit up"), weird vote totals (more votes counted than cast, undervote totals that defy common sense) and an array of other "glitches" in precincts that use electronic voting machines; and huge discrepancies between exit poll results and vote totals that, in other parts of the world, would instantly cast doubt on the validity of the election.
It all comes down to the first few words of Dorothy Fadiman's about-to-be-released documentary, "Stealing America: Vote by Vote," spoken by investigative journalist Greg Palast: "The nasty little secret of American democracy is that not all the votes get counted."
It has been my privilege to be part of two new documentaries -- Fadiman's, and David Earnhardt's "Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections," which is currently in theaters and available on DVD -- that focus on the disquieting irregularities (see above) of the 2004 and subsequent elections.
Both movies, by presenting the issue in Americans' medium of choice, and by creating a context for the possibility of election fraud that transcends Chicken Little and reminds viewers of our nation's long history of citizen struggle and vigilance, raise the hope that today's crisis will resonate with a large segment of the public and lead to widespread anger and awareness ... and maybe something that doesn't go away. A demand for paper ballots, perhaps. A citizens' movement.
Recognizing and capturing that "something" was, I think, the unstated goal of a recent two-day brainstorming session I attended in Palo Alto, Calif., that Fadiman organized among people long involved in the issue.
After a lot of anguished back-and-forth, we came out of it with a mission statement that was almost Zenlike in its quiet resonance: To encourage citizen ownership of transparent, participatory democracy.
The vision here, coiled in each word, is of a nation full of election monitors, demanding answers, standing tough when they are rebuffed or told, no, this information is not public (computer voting-machine source codes, exit poll data); or no, the public isn't allowed here (vote-count premises); or sorry, we didn't anticipate such a large turnout (not enough voting machines, not enough ballots).
"This really is the serious business of our lives," said Ion Sancho, election supervisor of Leon County, Fla., a fair-elections hero and one of the participants. "My goal is waking people up. My tactic is to put myself in the middle of the road and say" -- to anyone who would suppress or interfere with the vote -- "hey, you're going to have to hit me."
These are just words unless you sign on with your life.